Harvard Mental Health Letter

Ask the doctor: What is sensory processing disorder?

Q. My son always seems to be in trouble at school. His elementary school teacher told me she thinks he has sensory processing disorder. What is that?

A. Sensory processing disorder is a term used mainly by occupational therapists to describe children who have trouble integrating different types of sensory information, such as images, sounds, tastes, and smells.

Dr. A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist and developmental psychologist, first described what was then known as sensory integration dysfunction in 1972. Although the concept has evolved over the years, the core idea is that social, emotional, and behavioral problems might reflect a child's hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, or inability to integrate these stimuli properly. As a result, the child acts out, fidgets, has outbursts of anger, and develops problem behaviors at school and home.

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